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Going for the Gold: First International Adaptive Surf Championships set for La Jolla, Sept. 24-27

La Jolla Shores will be the home of the inaugural Adaptive Surf Championship Sept. 24-27, when more than 60 competitors representing 18 countries participate in a day of surfing for those with disabilities.

Fabrizio Passetti will represent Italy in the Adaptive Surf Championships debuting in La Jolla Shores Sept. 24-27.
Fabrizio Passetti will represent Italy in the Adaptive Surf Championships debuting in La Jolla Shores Sept. 24-27.

Should the event gain enough support and momentum, organizers hope it opens the doors for a similar tournament in the Olympics and Paralympics.

Run by the La Jolla-based International Surfing Association (ISA), which also runs other world surfing championships, the Adaptive Surf Championship is four days of countries coming together to surf.

“We have high hopes and big plans,” said ISA president Fernando Aguerre. “We want this event to happen every year in La Jolla — a pilgrimage, so to speak, for the challenged community. We are sitting on something that is going to get much bigger, become much more relevant and much more inspirational.”

To stage the event, ISA partnered with La Jolla-based Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which organizes the annual Triathlon Challenge at La Jolla Cove. Nancy Reynolds, senior director of development for CAF, explained that as part of the Triathlon Challenge in recent years, they hosted an adaptive surf clinic for children and invited ISA to volunteer and assist.

Seeing the healing impact surfing had on challenged participants, their will to compete, and the resources available through CAF, the organizations partnered to open the event to as many people as possible.

For the Adaptive Surf Championship, CAF provided travel grants and equipment for participants. “We’ve given out 34 travel grants to help a lot of these athletes get here. We wanted to make sure there was a good field of athletes,” reynolds said. After the competition, additional grants will go to companies that can make a surf board that meets the competitor’s individual needs or a wetsuit that has adaptations for single or double amputees.

“The event is going to be something that has never been seen before! I don’t think there has ever been this many adaptive surfers at such a high level in one place,” she said. “this first event could start a movement creating universal access to surfing.”

The event will be structured to look like a Paralympic activity with the hope that one day, the event will be included in the worldwide games.

preceding the opening ceremonies, on the morning of thursday, Sept. 24, the athletes will participate in an adaptive surf clinic in La Jolla Shores to get accustomed to the waters there.

that evening, starting at 5 p.m., the opening ceremony will be at the Spreckels Organ pavilion in balboa park, and include a parade with each athlete bringing sand from their respective countries and their home beach, said Aguerre.

“We will fill a box, in layers, with that sand,” he added. “You see all the layers of different colors and textures — it’s a very emotional thing to see. It brings together all the nations that are surfing together in peace. It’s our Olympic flame without having the flame.”

All day Friday, Sept. 25, the athletes take to the surf and compete. the competitors will be judged and scored in different categories, such as whether they surf prone (laying down) or standing, are blind or near blind, and have artificial limbs or no limbs. the event will be webcast live on isasurf.org

For a bit of respite, the surfers will attend a symposium on adaptive surfing featuring speakers on Saturday, Sept. 26. rounding out the championship, the surfers will return to the Shores for competition finals and an award ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 27. Similar to the Olympics, the closing ceremony will recognize first- through third-place winners in different categories, and play the national anthem of the winner’s country.

One of the surfers representing the United States is Alana Nichols, a six-time Paralympic medalist. A longtime snowboarder, Nichols only recently added surfing to her list of competitive sports, which includes wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing.

Alana Nichols, ISA president Fernando Aguerre and Spike Kane, a UK competitor, at a test run in La Jolla Shores. Courtesy
Alana Nichols, ISA president Fernando Aguerre and Spike Kane, a UK competitor, at a test run in La Jolla Shores. Courtesy

“I’m in love with surfing,” she said. “And I think it’s incredible for the adaptive surf movement to have a competition like this, so I’m excited to be a part of it.”

After a snowboarding accident in 2002 left her paralyzed from the waist down, Nichols looked to the Paralympics to continue to feed her competitive drive. While at a U.S. Paralympic games event in Hawaii in 2014, she tried surfing. “I was looking to change my lifestyle and to heal, and when I found myself in the ocean there was something spiritual, cleansing and liberating there,” she said.

In getting to know the adaptive surf community she said she has met several war veterans that were “prescribed” a surfing lesson by their physicians for its therapeutic properties.

perhaps more than the competition itself, she said she is excited at the prospect of this competition bringing awareness to adaptive surfing. “Like most sports, especially adaptive sports, when there is a competition element, it brings more attention and awareness,” she said. “I’m excited to see what we can do from here, it should kick off and get some momentum for other adaptive surf contests.”

If Aguerre has anything to do with it, surfing and adaptive surfing will soon be seen on the worldwide stage. This summer, surfing made the cut when the list of prospective sports to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was reduced from 26 to eight, with another announcement expected in the coming months. Aguerre is a driving force behind this effort. To be considered part of the Paralympic games, a world championship must be held to give a foundation for judging, criteria and athlete selection.

ISA has 96 surf federations worldwide, and, as is the protocol for other surf contests, each of them was offered the opportunity to choose an athlete to represent them in the upcoming Adaptive Surf Championship.

“These athletes already have such inspirational stories, but to hear how their lives have been changed by surfing is amazing,” Aguerre said. “As someone who grew up in Argentina, bringing all these people to America is really something that fills me with hope, with something like this we will positively impact people around the world.”